- Bitter with the Salt of Continents:Rachel Carson and Oceanic Returns
Revisiting The Sea Around Us in our moment of anthropogenic climate change, when both ecocritical scholarship and environmental policy are increasingly turning to more oceanic and planetary modes of thinking, compels responses both startling and familiar. I am struck, for one, by how often Rachel Carson invokes deep time not just as a geological fact, but as a theoretical and interpretive rubric. Such all-too-piercing lenses now used for viewing our present moment were not quite available to my eye upon first reading the book nearly twenty years ago. In a textual instantiation of geology that anticipates work on rocks as anthropocenic media presently being done by Dana Luciano, for example, Carson proposes that "the story of how the young planet Earth acquired an ocean … is founded on the testimony of the earth's most ancient rocks" (1991, 3). In a similar vein, the sedimentary layer of the sea floor, which in Carson's quietly moving image accretes as if the longest imaginable snowfall, likewise bears witness, this time in verse: "The sediments are a sort of epic poem of the earth. When we are wise enough, perhaps we can read in them all of past history. For all is written here. In the nature of the materials that compose them and in the arrangement of their successive layers the sediments reflect all that has happened in the waters above them and on the surrounding lands" (76). Not a metaphor, "the book of the sediments" provides its own thin leaves to the skilled interpreter—much as ice core samples do for glaciologists and paleoclimatologists tracking global warming trends, or atmospheric evidence recorded in the earth's stratigraphic record does for geologists determining epochs of geological time. [End Page 287]
Deep time provides a way for Carson to comment upon contemporary trends in global warming and sea level increases as well. Consider the cool observational pleasure that she takes in documenting warming temperatures and rising seas before 1951, the year The Sea Around Us was published. This tone is characteristic of her luminous yet spare prose: a systems thinker, interested in cycles, Carson notes the function of the oceans as a "global thermostat" and finds that "the evidence that the top of the world is growing warmer is to be found on every hand" (182). What is more, she writes, "[W]e live in an age of rising seas" (97). This, she finds, "is an interesting and even an exciting thing because it is rare that, in the short span of human life, we can actually observe and measure the progress of one of the great earth rhythms. What is happening is nothing new" (97). What is arresting about rereading this argument in 2017, in which rising seas are projected to overwhelm major coastal cities around the world within the next one hundred years, is in part its seeming prescience. Will soon "the surf … break against the foothills of the Appalachians," Carson wonders? With a shrug, she says simply, "[N]o one can say" (98). What is equally startling to realize about her meditation on the rising seas, however, is that the logic of rhythmic return ("nothing new," another cycle of planetary time) is also the rejoinder made by climate change deniers (nothing new, natural variability) to the alarms about global warming raised by the very environmental activists and climate scientists to whose movement and research Rachel Carson has been foundational.
I sense the impress of Carson's oceanic figurations of planetary consciousness in a recent interview that Ursula Le Guin gave to the New York Times, in which the writer reflected on longstanding themes in her works about troubled homelands and ambiguous homecomings. Le Guin herself, of course, has long been invested in environmental justice in her writing, and in the fall semester I taught her novel The Dispossessed, first published in 1974, in an undergraduate class on cli-fi or climate fiction. The students were drawn to a passage in which the self-exiled protagonist Shevek muses on the impossibility of homecoming: "You shall not go down twice to the same river, nor can...